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In Honor of Economist and Educator Stephen Golub

Man sitting in bench wearing beige shirt looks back at camera

President Valerie Smith shared the following message with the campus community on August 18, 2020:

Dear Friends,

With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Stephen Golub, the Franklin and Betty Barr Professor of Economics, died peacefully at his home in Swarthmore on Wednesday from complications of cancer. He was 67.

Steve will be remembered as a widely respected and gifted scholar, a highly sought-after consultant to governments and international agencies who was as comfortable discussing his work in French as in English, a consensus seeker, and a loyal and generous friend. 

Steve is survived by his wife of 36 years, Kit Raven, their three daughters and two sons-in-law, four grandchildren, and two brothers. His loving presence as husband, father, brother, and friend were wonderfully celebrated at a small, physically-distanced gathering held by his family on August 16. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that friends contribute to political candidates who will champion Steve’s priorities of equality, inclusion, and anti-racism, and that they vote in November and urge others to vote as well.

I invite you to read more below about Steve and his numerous contributions to our community. 


Val Smith

In Honor of Economist and Educator Stephen Golub

The Swarthmore community has lost one of its most admired and influential members, Stephen Golub, the Franklin and Betty Barr Professor of Economics. A renowned authority on labor costs and international competitiveness, Golub was a prodigious researcher and collaborator as well as a mentor to generations of both students and colleagues. He died Wednesday, August 12, at age 67.

“Steve's teaching was driven by his belief that economics could help us understand and attempt to solve challenging social and economic problems around the world,” says Professor of Economics Ellen Magenheim. “He wasn't just trying to teach skills or models, although that was certainly important; he wanted students to see how to use those skills and models in ways that could improve society — as he truly believed they could.”

“I learned a tremendous amount from Steve about the value of clarity and conviction in research,” says Stephen O'Connell, the Gil and Frank Mustin Professor and Chair of Economics. “I rely more and more on his papers in my syllabi because of the rare combination of analytical judgment, creativity, and empirical relevance they bring to the table.”

“It is going to be very difficult for me to think of Swarthmore College without Steve Golub; he embodied all the good qualities I associate with this place,” says Ayse Kaya, associate professor and chair of political science and program coordinator of global studies. “An exemplary colleague, he exuded a non-fading passion for teaching and his students, and was genuinely cosmopolitan in outlook, with a command of French that allowed him to properly analyze economies from their local settings. He was also unwaveringly supportive of the less fortunate.”

Golub, the oldest son of globally prominent artists Nancy Spero and Leon Golub H’85, grew up in Paris, where his parents spent vital years in their celebrated careers. He later attended Williams College, graduating magna cum laude with highest honors in economics in 1974, and two years later earned an M.A. from Yale University. 

After three years working as an economist for the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Golub returned to Yale to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. Once at Swarthmore, he would frequently advise students to earn a paycheck before deciding on graduate school.

At Yale, Golub completed his Ph.D. under Nobel laureate James Tobin. Golub later collaborated with Tobin on a revision of Tobin’s monograph on advanced macroeconomics, an experience he credited with transforming the clarity and concision of his own writing.

Golub joined Swarthmore’s economics faculty in 1981, as the department began a shift to hiring more economists with Ph.Ds, and taught international economics, macroeconomics, microeconomics, money and banking, and development, as well as the department’s introductory course. His international economics seminar is legendary, and is often cited by former students as one of their most influential College experiences. 

“He owned that seminar,” says John Caskey, the Joseph Wharton Professor of Economics, noting it was common knowledge that it would frequently run five hours or more. “We joked with him that he thought he was paid by the hour. But he loved international economic theory and policy, and he was deeply determined that his students would master the material and share that passion.”

In characteristically humble fashion, Golub stated as much in a 2003 interview: “Our students are sponges for knowledge. They may not know a lot about the world at first, but by the time students come out of my international economics seminar, I like to think they really understand what’s happening in the global economy. They leave with methods of analysis and can really conceptualize some of these issues.”
About 10 years ago, Golub developed a new course, Global Capitalism Since 1920, that Caskey says covered the “big ideas” in political economy and international economics and that Golub grew to love as much as his seminar. “Many students listed it as one of the courses at Swarthmore that most influenced their thinking,” Caskey says.
Golub also taught at the Wharton School for many years, where his course, Nations, Politics and Markets, was popular among undergraduate business majors. In recognition of his exemplary teaching, he was awarded the Laurence and Susan Hirsch Adjunct Professorship, which recognizes distinguished teachers and scholars who contribute to the intellectual environment. In 2017, he also received Wharton’s Huntsman Senior Class Undergraduate Teaching Award.
In addition to Wharton, Golub held teaching posts at Columbia University, Yale, and the University of California, Berkeley. He also consulted extensively with international organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Golub often pursued ambitious research projects in West Africa on behalf of these agencies while working with African economists. 
While this enriched his work, Caskey says it also added a level of complexity to the projects. “His research emphasized an on-the-ground knowledge of institutional details rather than distant analyses of government data. He sincerely cared about the economic and social challenges facing West African countries, and was deeply engaged in trying to understand reforms that could raise standards of living.”
Ultimately, Golub authored four books and nearly 50 journal articles and book chapters, producing influential research that demonstrated the strong empirical link between labor costs and manufactured exports. He also consistently sought opportunities to collaborate with his students.
“Countless Swarthmore students have benefited from his wisdom and enthusiasm for economics,” Professor of Economics Mark Kuperberg says. “This has been true both in the classroom and as a mentor and co-author.”
Indeed, Golub’s success in co-authoring papers with students is something his colleagues have aspired to emulate. 
“Managing and delivering these projects with students requires a combination of clarity in research and rapidity in production that are hallmarks of all of his work,” O’Connell says. “He has been an inspiration for all of us in showing the possibilities for collaboration with students, and the impact on his students has been extraordinary.” To further encourage such collaborations, this year the Economics Department and the Global Studies Program plan to establish student research grants in Golub’s honor.
During a 1998-99 sabbatical, Golub pursued a long-term interest in the economics of francophone Africa and spent the year with his family in Dakar, Sénégal. There, he began a friendship and research partnership with economist Ahmadou Aly Mbaye of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, which deepened when Mbaye served as Cornell Visiting Professor at Swarthmore in 2004-05. Their joint work on the informal sector and cross-border trade in West Africa resulted in numerous publications, most recently The Informal Sector in Francophone Africa (2020). In 2018, they even appeared together on Senegalese national television, where they discussed the U.S.’s role in the G7 summit. 

Kuperberg, citing British economist John Maynard Keynes’ belief that economists should most aspire to be “humble and competent,” says that “this was precisely the orientation that Steve brought to his research.”

Reflecting on his long-held interest in economic development issues and the economic relationships between the U.S. and other countries, Golub acknowledged it is “a bit of a cliché, but economics is supposed to help alleviate problems of poverty.” He continued: “To me, economics isn’t about pure theory, although there is a lot of theory in economics. It’s what economics can say about the real world, and nowhere is that more important than at the international level.”
Golub also took great interest in campus initiatives. In 2017, he served as a faculty advisor for the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship program and worked to construct a model for how the College will most effectively enact carbon charging (thereby helping Swarthmore meet its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2035). For this work, he developed strategies for the College’s carbon-charge blueprint, informed by a study of carbon pricing in the private sector.
Last fall, Golub taught two sections of Introduction to Economics and finished the semester after already having begun treatment for his illness.

“Part of what made him so effective as a teacher was the joy that it brought to him,” Magenheim says. “If I ever needed inspiration, I could be sure that a conversation with Steve about teaching would provide it.”

Philip Jefferson, an economist and longtime Swarthmore colleague who last year became vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Davidson College, credits Golub’s “warmth and sincerity” with attracting him to the College more than 20 years ago, and remembers him as a “transcendent” liberal arts professor.

“By this I mean, in any generation, Steve would have been recognized as a great friend, trusted mentor, willing collaborator, and valued colleague,” Jefferson says. “I will miss his wise counsel, quiet confidence, good humor, and his unwavering belief that economics was most useful when it was uncomplicated.”

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